Glenapp Castle Hotel in Scotland
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Glenapp Castle ~ Press Reviews

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The Telegraph (May 2007)

Mastery at Ballantrae
Claudine Beaumont explores the wild woods and rhododendrons at a restored Scottish castle

All along the coastal road leading to Glenapp Castle, above the village of Ballantrae in Ayrshire, low-growing gorse and bracken hug the cliffs and rocky outcrops, and trees stand frozen and twisted into shape by the winds that blow off the Irish Sea.

So it comes as quite a shock to turn into the lush driveway leading to the castle, built in 1870 and now an award-winning luxury hotel, and see a private arboretum on one side, with a collection of species bamboo and a giant redwood, and a slope crammed with gently nodding flowers on the other.

A vast monkey-puzzle tree guards the entrance to Glenapp, home to Graham and Fay Cowan and their two sons.

Set in 30 acres of gardens, the castle is, as Graham puts it, an oasis. The surrounding deciduous woodland acts as a windbreak and the site catches the tail-end of the Gulf stream, creating a mild microclimate where cordylines and specimen abies grow side by side.

When the Cowans first acquired the property in 1994, both the house and garden needed an overhaul. Dry rot had set in and the grounds were a wilderness

"It looked like an abandoned fairytale castle," said Graham, "but we knew if we left the gardens as they were, within a year the bracken would have taken hold and overwhelmed everything."

The Cowans were very aware of the need to preserve some of the most established plants. The castle grounds are an embarrassment of rhododendron riches, with huge trees blooming magnificently around every corner. The precise varieties remain a mystery, despite efforts to identify them by visiting members of the American Rhododendron Society.

Glenapp Castle Gardens & Grounds
At work in Glenapp Castle Gardens & Grounds Entrance to Glenapp Castle Gardens & Grounds Glenapp Castle Gardens & Grounds

The man responsible for maintaining Glenapp's grounds is Bobby Cunningham, the head gardener. He and two assistants look after lawns and woodland, a 46m (150ft) glasshouse and a walled kitchen garden, as well as a small formal garden where curry plants, cordylines, and polyanthus are flanked by conifers. It's a big task for a small team: the lawns around the castle, walled garden and croquet area alone add up to 10 miles of mowing.

"I leave that to one of the other guys," says Bobby. "I do the other areas, on a ride-on mower."

The glasshouse is a real focal point, but when the Cowans bought Glenapp, it was just a mass of rotting wood and cracked panes propped up by a giant fig tree whose creeping roots had caused the low stone walls of the glasshouse to buckle. The estate's microclimate means that scorching, rather than frost damage, is the biggest problem facing plants grown in here, but that doesn't stop an ambitious Bobby from growing banana palms, Passiflora caerulea, apricots, nectarines, and kiwi, plus a 50-year-old dessert grape vine.

Glenapp is well-known for its excellent food. It won a Michelin star in January this year, and the chefs are keen to use locally grown produce wherever possible. Although the kitchen garden can't produce enough to be self-sufficient, it does help supplement existing supplies. The chefs want year-round asparagus, but Bobby has put his foot down - that would require too many raised beds and too much work for his small team.

Instead, apples and pears are espalier-trained on wires and crumbling brickwork, alongside obelisks filled with the sweet scent of climbing roses. Sage, thyme, chives and curry plant (Helichrysum italicum) are grown in large beds, with fennel, rhubarb and various brassicas jostling for position against a backdrop of netted fruit cages containing strawberries, blackburrants, tayberries and loganberries. The soil at Glenapp is quite poor - a shallow clay - so Bobby enriches it with compost from a vast pile near the polytunnels where he propagates his bedding plants. About 4,000 of these plants, including dianthus, begonias, and various perennials, were planted at the main entrance this year.

It is Glenapp's woodland setting that gives it the feel of a Scottish bolthole, and it is in this part of the grounds that Bobby seems most at home. The gardens are a work in progress; he is now laying a path along one edge of the estate so guests can view the daffodils.

On a slope above the castle, in what used to be part of a deer park, sycamores and slender birches cast long shadows over lichen-clad trees ("a sign of clean air," says Bobby, proudly) and the mossy floor. Deer and rabbits are still frequent visitors and often nibble at new seedlings, but Bobby is unperturbed:

"It can be disappointing when you see them eating things you've spent time planting out, but it's only natural. It's like the way we try new food in the supermarket."

More worrying was a recent sighting of a grey squirrel - Scotland has some of the few remaining red squirrel strongholds. Bobby spends much of his time locked in battle with Rhododendron ponticum.

"If I leave it too long, it will self-seed and take over," he says, scanning the wood for the next plant to grub out. "Give it the right growing conditions and it could cover a football pitch in 10 years."

Bobby wants to make the best of the tranquil surroundings, and would like to plant wildflower and woodland meadows and expand the range of fruit and vegetables in the walled kitchen garden: "Nature never stands still, so why should the gardens?"

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